The United States has imposed targeted economic and travel sanctions against Russian citizens and companies in three major waves.
The first of those was the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012, imposed for gross human rights abuses and corruption.
The second came in March 2014, when then President Barack Obama signed Executive Order (E.O.) 13660. It declared “a national emergency to deal with the threat posed by the actions and policies of certain persons who had undermined democratic processes and institutions in Ukraine; threatened the peace, security, stability, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Ukraine; and contributed to the misappropriation of Ukraine’s assets.”
Then, last December, Obama ordered the seizure of Russian diplomatic property in the United States and the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats in response for Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Following on that, the U.S. Congress in July approved a package of sanctions against Russia for meddling in the 2016 vote.
U.S. President Donald Trump signed the sanctions into law in early August.
With each wave of sanctions against Russia, the list of targeted industries, companies and persons has expanded.
Over the five years since the first set of sanctions was imposed, the Kremlin has repeatedly denied that the measures have been effective.
More recently, however, Russian officials began pushing of the idea that the U.S. imposed sanctions are “illegal” under international law.
During a visit in Finland in late July, President Vladimir Putin called the U.S. sanctions against his country “absolutely unlawful from the point of view of international law."
Several high-ranking Russian politicians have repeated that narrative, including Andrei Klimov, deputy chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Federation Council, the upper house of Russia’s parliament.
“These sanctions are illegal in themselves, because the only thing recognized by international law is the sanctions of the UN Security Council,” Klimov told RT last week.
Russia is not alone in objecting to sanctions unilaterally imposed by the United States. Germany’s Minister for Economics and Energy Brigitte Zypries said in late July that the sanctions the U.S. imposed on Russia are “against international law, plain and simple.”
Despite that criticism, Germany previously joined with its European Union partners in approving a majority of the U.S. sanctions against Russia. The EU has also imposed its own sanctions on Russia (see “European Union: Restrictive measures (sanctions) in force,” pages 52-54; 100-110.)
The legal basis for sanctions imposed by the U.S. government can be found in the Code of Laws of the United States of America (U.S. Code Annotated, Title 50. War and National Defense Chapter 35. International Emergency Economic Powers § 1701. Unusual and extraordinary threat; declaration of national emergency; exercise of Presidential authorities.)
Multilateral sanctions are approved by the United Nations Security Council and are obligatory for all member countries.
“The Security Council can take action to maintain or restore international peace and security under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter. Sanctions measures, under Article 41, encompass a broad range of enforcement options that do not involve the use of armed force,” the UN regulation states.
The UN Security Council has nine monitoring groups, which work to ensure that fair and clear procedures are in place for the imposition and lifting of sanctions.
Russia and other countries that dispute the legality of unilateral sanctions cite the World Trade Organization’s General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which covers a “wide range of activities” in the international trade following the principles of the trading system, including the right to trade without discrimination.
Countries targeted by unilateral sanctions have frequently cited GATT principles in arguing that the restrictions were discriminatory and illegal, and thus violated international law.
However, GATT’s Article XXI, which covers “Security Exceptions,” legalizes the right of any nation to impose unilateral sanctions against another country when “essential security interests” are involved.
While the text of GATT has been reviewed and amended several times since its creation shortly after World War II, Article XXI has never been amended.